The Teaching of Vimalakīrti
Antecedents and Transmission of the Holy Dharma
Degé Kangyur vol. 60 (mdo sde, ma), folios 175.a–239.a
While the Buddha is teaching outside the city of Vaiśālī, a notable householder in the city—the great bodhisattva Vimalakīrti—apparently falls sick. The Buddha asks his disciple and bodhisattva disciples to call on Vimalakīrti, but each of them relates previous encounters that have rendered them reluctant to face his penetrating scrutiny of their attitudes and activities. Only Mañjuśrī has the courage to pay him a visit, and in the conversations that ensue between Vimalakīrti, Mañjuśrī, and several other interlocutors, Vimalakīrti sets out an uncompromising and profound view of the Buddha’s teaching and the bodhisattva path, illustrated by various miraculous displays. Its masterful narrative structure, dramatic and sometimes humorous dialogue, and highly evolved presentation of teachings have made this sūtra one of the favorites of Mahāyāna literature.
Translated by Robert A. F. Thurman and first published, under the title The Holy Teaching of Vimalakīrti: A Mahāyāna Scripture, by the Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park and London, in 1976.
This electronic edition for 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, with an abridged introduction and notes, and lightly edited under the supervision of Professor Thurman, is published by his kind permission as the copyright holder.
From the Preface to the original edition:
I sincerely thank my friend and benefactor, Dr. C. T. Shen, both for his sponsorship of the work and for his most helpful collaboration in the work of comparing the Tibetan and Chinese versions. We were sometimes joined in our round-table discussions by Drs. C. S. George, Tao-Tien Yi, F. S. K. Koo, and T. C. Tsao, whose helpful suggestions I gratefully acknowledge. My thanks also go to Ms. Yeshe Tsomo and Ms. Leah Zahler for their invaluable editorial assistance, and to Ms. Carole Schwager and the staff of The Pennsylvania State University Press.
Preface to this electronic edition:
I earnestly thank Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche for his great efforts in creating the 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha project, to present in English the many great works of the Buddha’s teachings freely to the world.
I also thank John Canti, of 84000, for his careful, creative, and very learned translating and editorial work on this electronic edition, without which this improved translation would not have materialized. I thank Mr. Patrick Alexander, of the Penn State University Press, who was the one who informed me that the copyright to my original translation done for the Institute for Advanced Studies of World Religions had reverted to me upon the termination of that Institute, to which I had previously conveyed my rights.
I intend to publish in print form a further update of that original version at a future time. Since there have been a number of free-floating electronic forms of this text on the internet for some years now, I am happy that the sūtra in its current revision is now available in the 84000 Reading Room, among the many other translations on that site.
Then Śakra, the king of the gods, said to the Buddha, “Lord, formerly I have heard from the Tathāgata and from Mañjuśrī, the crown prince of wisdom, many hundreds of thousands of teachings of the Dharma, but I have never before heard a teaching of the Dharma as remarkable as this instruction in the entrance into the method of inconceivable transformations.206 Lord, those living beings who, having heard this teaching of the Dharma, accept it, remember it, read it, and understand it deeply will be, without a doubt, true vessels of the Dharma; [F.235.a] there is no need to mention those who apply themselves to the yoga of meditation upon it. They will cut off all possibility of unhappy lives, will open their way to all fortunate lives, will always be looked after by all buddhas, will always overcome all adversaries, and will always conquer all devils. They will practice the path of the bodhisattvas, will take their places upon the seat of enlightenment, and will have truly entered the domain of the tathāgatas. Lord, the noble sons and daughters who will teach and practice this exposition of the Dharma will be honored and served by me and my followers. To the villages, towns, cities, states, kingdoms, and capitals wherein this teaching of the Dharma will be applied, taught, and demonstrated, I and my followers will come to hear the Dharma. I will inspire the unbelieving with faith, and I will guarantee my help and protection to those who believe and uphold the Dharma.”
At these words, the Buddha said to Śakra, the king of the gods, “Excellent! Excellent, king of gods! The Tathāgata rejoices in your good words. King of gods, the enlightenment of the buddhas of the past, present, and future is expressed in this discourse of Dharma. Therefore, king of gods, when noble sons and daughters accept it, repeat it, understand it deeply, write it completely, and, making it into a book, honor it, those sons and daughters thereby pay homage to the buddhas of the past, present, and future.
“Let us suppose, king of gods, that this billion-world galactic universe were as full of tathāgatas as it is covered with groves of sugarcane, with rosebushes, with bamboo thickets, with sesame gardens, and with flowers, [F.235.b] and that a noble son or daughter were to honor them, revere them, respect and adore them, offering them all sorts of comforts and offerings for an eon or more than an eon. And let us suppose that, these tathāgatas having entered ultimate liberation, he or she honored each of them by enshrining their preserved bodies in a memorial stūpa made of precious stones, each as large as a world with four great continents, rising as high as the world of Brahmā, adorned with parasols, banners, standards, and lamps. And let us suppose finally that, having erected all these stūpas for the tathāgatas, he or she were to devote an eon or more to offering them flowers, perfumes, banners, and standards, while playing drums and music. That being done, what do you think, king of gods? Would that noble son or daughter receive much merit as a consequence of such activities?”
Śakra, the king of the gods, replied, “Many merits, Lord! Many merits, O Sugata! Were one to spend hundreds of thousands of millions of eons, it would be impossible to measure the limit of the mass of merits that that noble son or daughter would thereby gather!”
The Buddha said, “Have faith, king of gods, and understand this: whoever accepts this exposition of the Dharma called Instruction in the Inconceivable Liberation,207 recites it, and understands it deeply, he or she will gather merits even greater than those who perform the above acts. Why so? Because, king of gods, the enlightenment of the buddhas arises from the Dharma, and one honors them by Dharma worship, and not by material worship. Thus it is taught, king of gods, and thus you must understand it.”
The Buddha then further said to Śakra, the king of the gods, “Once, king of gods, long ago, long before eons more numerous than the innumerable, immense, immeasurable, inconceivable, and even before then, the tathāgata called Bhaiṣajyarāja appeared in the world: [F.236.a] an arhat, perfectly and fully enlightened, endowed with knowledge and conduct, a well-gone one, knower of the world, incomparable knower of men who need to be civilized, teacher of gods and men, a lord, a buddha.208 He appeared in the eon called Vicaraṇa in the universe called Mahāvyūha.
“The length of life of this perfectly and fully enlightened Tathāgata Bhaiṣajyarāja was twenty short eons. His retinue of disciples numbered thirty-six million billion, and his retinue of bodhisattvas numbered twelve million billion. In that same era, king of gods, there was a universal monarch called King Ratnacchattra, who reigned over the four continents and possessed seven precious jewels. He had one thousand heroic sons, powerful, strong, and able to conquer enemy armies. This King Ratnacchattra honored the Tathāgata Bhaiṣajyarāja and his retinue with many excellent offerings during five short eons. At the end of this time, King Ratnacchattra said to his sons, ‘Recognizing that during my reign I have worshiped the Tathāgata, in your turn you also should worship him.
“The thousand princes gave their consent, obeying their father the king, and all together, during another five short eons, they honored the Tathāgata Bhaiṣajyarāja with all sorts of excellent offerings.
“Then, the prince Candracchattra went to the Lord Bhaiṣajyarāja, the arhat, the Tathāgata, the unexcelled, perfectly enlightened one, and, having approached him, bowed down at his feet, circumambulated him to the right three times, and withdrew to one side. He then asked, ‘Lord, I have heard of a “Dharma-worship,” which surpasses all other worship. What is this “Dharma-worship”?’
“The Tathāgata Bhaiṣajyarāja said, ‘Noble son, Dharma-worship is that worship rendered to the discourses taught by the Tathāgata. These discourses are deep and profound in illumination. They do not conform to the mundane and are difficult to understand and difficult to see and difficult to realize. They are subtle, precise, and ultimately incomprehensible. As sūtras, they are collected in the canon of the bodhisattvas, stamped with the insignia of the king of incantations and teachings.209 They reveal the irreversible wheel of Dharma, arising from the six transcendences, cleansed of any false notions. They are endowed with all the aids to enlightenment and embody the seven factors of enlightenment. They introduce living beings to the great compassion and teach them the great love. They eliminate all the convictions of the māras, and they manifest relativity.
“ ‘They make possible the attainment of the seat of enlightenment and set in motion the wheel of the Dharma. They are approved and praised by the chiefs of the gods, nāgas, yakṣas, gandharvas, asuras, garuḍas, kinnaras, and mahoragas. They preserve unbroken the heritage of the holy Dharma, contain the treasury of the Dharma, and represent the summit of Dharma-worship. They are upheld by all holy beings and teach all the bodhisattva practices. [F.237.a] They induce the unmistaken understanding of the Dharma in its ultimate sense. They bring emancipation through teaching the epitomes of the Dharma, and the impermanence, misery, selflessness, and peace of all things. They cause the abandonment of avarice, immorality, malice, laziness, forgetfulness, foolishness, and jealousy, as well as bad convictions, adherence to objects, and all opposition. They are praised by all the buddhas. They are the medicines for the tendencies of mundane life, and they authentically manifest the great happiness of liberation. To teach correctly, to uphold, to investigate, and to understand such sūtras, thus incorporating into one’s own life the holy Dharma—that is “Dharma-worship.”
“ ‘Furthermore, noble son, the Dharma-worship consists of determining the Dharma according to the Dharma; applying the Dharma according to the Dharma; being in harmony with relativity; being free of extremist convictions; attaining the tolerance of ultimate birthlessness and nonoccurrence of all things; realizing selflessness and living-beinglessness; refraining from struggle about causes and conditions, without quarreling or disputing; not being possessive; being free of egoism; relying on the meaning and not on the literal expression; relying on gnosis and not on consciousness; relying on the ultimate teachings definitive in meaning and not insisting on the superficial teachings interpretable in meaning; relying on reality and not insisting on opinions derived from personal authorities;210 realizing correctly the reality of the Buddha; realizing the ultimate absence of any fundamental consciousness; and overcoming the habit of clinging to an ultimate ground. Finally, attaining peace by stopping everything from ignorance to old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, anxiety, and trouble, and realizing that living beings know no end to their views concerning these twelve links of dependent origination—then, noble son, when you do not hold to any view at all, that is called unexcelled Dharma-worship.’211
“King of gods, when the prince Candracchattra had heard this definition of Dharma-worship from the Tathāgata Bhaiṣajyarāja, he attained the conformative tolerance of ultimate birthlessness, and, taking his robes and ornaments, he offered them [F.237.b] to the Buddha Bhaiṣajyarāja, saying, ‘When the Tathāgata will be in ultimate liberation, I wish to defend his holy Dharma, to protect it, and to worship it. May the Tathāgata grant me his supernatural blessing, that I may be able to conquer Māra and all adversaries and to incorporate in all my lives the holy Dharma of the Buddha!’
“The Tathāgata Bhaiṣajyarāja, knowing the high resolve of Candracchattra, prophesied to him that he would be, at a later time, in the future, the protector, guardian, and defender of the city of the holy Dharma. Then, king of gods, the prince Candracchattra, out of his great faith in the Tathāgata, left the household life in order to enter the homeless life of a monk and, having done so, lived making great effort toward the attainment of virtue. Having made great effort and being well established in virtue, he soon produced the five superknowledges, understood the incantations, and obtained invincible eloquence. When the Tathāgata Bhaiṣajyarāja attained ultimate liberation, Candracchattra, on the strength of his superknowledges and by the power of his retention, made the wheel of the Dharma turn just as the Tathāgata Bhaiṣajyarāja had done and continued to do so for ten short eons.
“King of gods, while the monk Candracchattra was exerting himself thus to protect the holy Dharma, thousands of millions of living beings reached the stage of irreversibility on the path to unexcelled, perfect enlightenment, fourteen billion living beings were disciplined in the vehicles of the disciples and solitary sages, and innumerable living beings took rebirth in the human and heavenly realms.
“Perhaps, king of gods, you are wondering or experiencing some doubt about whether or not, at that former time, the King Ratnacchattra was not some other than the actual Tathāgata Ratnārcis. You must not imagine that, for the present Tathāgata Ratnārcis was at that time, in that epoch, the universal monarch Ratnacchattra. As for the thousand sons of the King Ratnacchattra, they are now the thousand bodhisattvas of the present blessed eon, [F.238.a] during the course of which they are to become all of the one thousand buddhas to appear in the world. Four of them, Krakucchanda and the others, have already appeared and the rest are still to be born. They start from Krakucchanda and end with the Tathāgata Roca, who will be the last to be born.212
“Perhaps, king of gods, you are asking yourself if, in that life, in that time, the Prince Candracchattra who upheld the holy Dharma of Lord Tathāgata Bhaiṣajyarāja was not someone other than myself. But you must not imagine that, for I was, in that life, in that time, the Prince Candracchattra. Thus, it is necessary to know, king of gods, that among all the worships rendered to the Tathāgata, Dharma-worship is the very best. Yes, it is good, eminent, excellent, perfect, supreme, and unexcelled. And therefore, king of gods, do not worship me with material objects but worship me with Dharma-worship! Do not honor me with material objects but honor me by honor to the Dharma!”
Then the Lord Śākyamuni said to the bodhisattva Maitreya, the great spiritual hero, “I transmit to you, Maitreya, this unexcelled, perfect enlightenment which I attained only after innumerable millions of billions of eons, in order that, at a later time, during a later life, a similar teaching of the Dharma, protected by your supernatural power, will spread in the world and will not disappear. Why? Maitreya, in the future there will be noble sons and daughters, devas, nāgas, yakṣas, gandharvas, and asuras, who, having planted the roots of virtue, will conceive the spirit of unexcelled, perfect enlightenment. If they do not hear this teaching of the Dharma, they will certainly lose boundless advantages and even perish. But if they hear such a teaching, they will rejoice, will believe, and will accept it upon the crowns of their heads. Hence, in order to protect those future noble sons and daughters, you must spread a teaching such as this!
“Maitreya, there are two gestures of the bodhisattvas. What are they? [F.238.b] The first gesture is to believe in all sorts of phrases and words, and the second gesture is to penetrate exactly the profound principle of the Dharma without being afraid. Such are the two gestures of the bodhisattvas. Maitreya, it must be known that the bodhisattvas who believe in all sorts of words and phrases, and apply themselves accordingly, are beginners and not experienced in religious practice. But the bodhisattvas who read, hear, believe, and teach this profound teaching with its impeccable expressions reconciling dichotomies and its analyses of stages of development—these are veterans in the religious practice.
“Maitreya, there are two reasons that beginner bodhisattvas hurt themselves and do not concentrate on the profound Dharma. What are they? Hearing this profound teaching never before heard, they are terrified and doubtful, do not rejoice, and reject it, thinking, ‘Whence comes this teaching never before heard?’ They then behold other noble sons accepting, becoming vessels for, and teaching this profound teaching, and they do not attend upon them, do not befriend them, do not respect them, and do not honor them, and eventually they go so far as to criticize them. These are the two reasons the beginner bodhisattvas hurt themselves and do not penetrate the profound Dharma.
“There are two reasons the bodhisattvas who do aspire to the profound Dharma hurt themselves and do not attain the tolerance of the ultimate birthlessness of things. What are these two? These bodhisattvas despise and reproach the beginner bodhisattvas, who have not been practicing for a long time, and they do not initiate them or instruct them in the profound teaching. Having no great respect for this profound teaching, they are not careful about its rules. They help living beings by means of material gifts and do not help them by means of the gift of the Dharma. Such, Maitreya, are the two reasons the bodhisattvas who aspire to the profound Dharma hurt themselves and will not quickly attain the tolerance of the ultimate birthlessness of all things.”
Having been thus taught, the bodhisattva Maitreya said to the Buddha, [F.239.a] “Lord, the beautiful teachings of the Tathāgata are wonderful and truly excellent. Lord, from this time forth, I will avoid all such errors and will defend and uphold this attainment of unexcelled, perfect enlightenment by the Tathāgata during innumerable hundreds of thousands of millions of billions of eons! In the future, I will place in the hands of noble sons and noble daughters who are worthy vessels of the holy Dharma this profound teaching. I will instill in them the power of memory with which they may, having believed in this teaching, retain it, recite it, penetrate its depths, teach it, propagate it, write it down, and proclaim it extensively to others.
“Thus I will instruct them, Lord, and thus it may be known that in that future time those who believe in this teaching and who enter deeply into it will be sustained by the supernatural blessing of the bodhisattva Maitreya.”
Then all the bodhisattvas said together in one voice, “Lord, we also, after the ultimate liberation of the Tathāgata, will come from our various buddhafields to spread far and wide this enlightenment of the perfect Buddha, the Tathāgata. May all noble sons and daughters believe in that!”
Then the four Mahārājas, the great kings of the quarters, said to the Buddha, “Lord, in all the towns, villages, cities, kingdoms, and palaces, wherever this formulation of the Dharma will be practiced, upheld, and correctly taught, we, [F.239.b] the four great kings, will go there with our armies, our young warriors, and our retinues, to hear the Dharma. And we will protect the teachers of this Dharma for a radius of one league so that no one who plots injury or disruption against these teachers will have any opportunity to do them harm.”
The Buddha said, “Ānanda, this formulation of the Dharma is called The Teaching of Vimalakīrti,213 or The Reconciliation of Dichotomies,214 or also Section of the Inconceivable Liberation.215 Remember it thus!”
Thus spoke the Buddha. And the Licchavi Vimalakīrti, the crown prince Mañjuśrī, the venerable Ānanda, the bodhisattvas, the great disciples, the entire multitude, and the whole universe with its gods, men, asuras, and gandharvas, rejoiced exceedingly. All heartily praised these declarations by the Lord.
|K||Kumārajīva’s Ch. translation|
|X||Xuanzang’s Ch. translation|
’phags pa dri ma med par grags pas bstan pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Āryavimalakīrtinirdeśanāmamahāyānasūtra). Toh. 176, Degé Kangyur, vol. 60 (mdo sde, ma), folios 175b–239a.
’phags pa dri ma med par grags pas bstan pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Āryavimalakīrtinirdeśanāmamahāyānasūtra). [Comparative Edition of the Kangyur], krung go’i bod rig pa zhib ’jug ste gnas kyi bka’ bstan dpe sdur khang (The Tibetan Tripitaka Collation Bureau of the China Tibetology Research Center). 108 volumes. Beijing: krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang (China Tibetology Publishing House), 2006–2009, vol. 60, pp. 476–635.
Study Group on Buddhist Sanskrit Literature. 梵文維摩經 : ポタラ宮所蔵写本に基づく校訂. Vimalakīrtinirdeśa, A Sanskrit Edition Based upon the Manuscript Newly Found at the Potala Palace. Tokyo: Institute for Comprehensive Studies of Buddhism, Taishō Daigaku Shuppankai, 2006.
Lamotte, Étienne. L’Enseignement de Vimalakīrti (Vimalakīrtinirdeśa). Louvain: Université de Louvain, Institut Orientaliste, 1962. [Translated from Tib. and Xuanzang’s Chinese].
Luk, Charles (tr.). The Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra. Berkeley and London: Shambhala, 1972. [Translated from Kumārajīva’s Chinese].
McRae, John R. (tr.). The Vimalakīrti Sūtra. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2004. [Translated from Kumārajīva’s Chinese].
Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra. Sanskrit text: see Lamotte 1935. Tibetan text: ’phags pa dgongs pa nges par ’grel pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo, Toh 106, Degé Kangyur vol. 49 (mdo sde, tsha), folios 1b–55b. English translation: see Buddhavacana Translation Group.https://read.84000.co/translation/toh106.html
Saddharmapuṇḍarīka. Sanskrit text: see Vaidya 1960, Wogihara et al. 1934-1935. Tibetan text: dpal dam chos pad ma dkar po zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo, Toh 113, Degé Kangyur, vol. 51 (mdo sed, ja), folios 1b–180b. English translations: see Kern 1884; Roberts, 2018.
Guhyasamājatantra. Sanskrit text: see Bagchi 1965. Tibetan text: de bzhin gshegs pa thams cad kyi sku gsung thugs kyi gsang chen gsang ba ’dus pa zhes bya ba brtag pa’i rgyal po chen po, Toh 442, Degé Kangyur vol. 81 (rgyud ’bum, ca), folios 89b–148a.
yul ’khor skyong gis zhus pa (Rāṣṭrapālaparipṛcchā). Toh 62, Degé Kangyur vol. 42 (dkon brtsegs, nga), folios 227.a–257.a. English translation in Vienna Buddhist Translation Studies Group (2021).
Candrakīrti. Prasannapadānāmamūlamadhyamakavṛtti. Sanskrit text: see La Vallée Poussin 1903-1912. Tibetan text: dbu ma rtsa ba’i ’grel pa tshig gsal ba, Toh 3860, Degé Tengyur vol. 102 (dbu ma, ’a), folios 1b–200a.
Nāgārjuna. Prajñanāmamūlamādhyamakakārikā. Sanskrit text and translation: see Inada 1970. Tibetan text: dbu ma rtsa ba’i tshig le’ur byas pa shes rab, Toh 3824, Degé Tengyur vol. 96 (dbu ma, tsa), folios 1b–19a.
Śāntideva. Śikṣāsamuccaya. Sanskrit text: see Vaidya, 1961. Tibetan text: bslab pa kun las btus pa, Toh 3940, Degé Tengyur vol. 111 (dbu ma, khi), folios 3a–194b. English translation: see Goodman 2016.
Bagchi, S. (ed.). Guhyasamājatantra. Buddhist Sanskrit Texts, No. 9. Darbhanga: Mithila Institute of Postgraduate Studies and Research in Sanskrit Learning, 1965.
Buddhavacana Translation Group. The Sūtra Unravelling the Intent (Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra, Toh 106). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.https://read.84000.co/translation/toh106.html
Dayal, Har. The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature. 1932. Reprint, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1970.
Goodman, Charles. The Training Anthology of Śāntideva: A Translation of the Śikṣā-samuccaya. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Inada, K. Nāgārjuna. Buffalo, N.Y., 1970.
Kern, H. (ed.). Saddharma-Puṇḍarīka, or Lotus of the True Law. Sacred Books of the East, Vol. XXI. Oxford: Clarendon, 1884.
Lamotte, Étienne (tr.). Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra: L’Explication des mystères. [Tib. text and French translation]. Louvain: Université de Louvain; and Paris: Adrien Maisonneuve, 1935.
La Vallée Poussin, L. de (ed.). Mūlamadhyamakakārikās (Mādhyamikasūtras) de Nāgārjuna avec la Prasannapadā, commentaire de Candrakīrti . Bibliotheca Buddhica IV. St. Petersburg: Académie Impériale des sciences, 1903-1913.
Roberts, Peter (tr.). The White Lotus of the Good Dharma (Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra, Toh 113). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2018 (read.84000.co).
Sakaki (ed.). Mahāvyutpatti, Skt.-Tib. lexicon. Kyoto, 1916-1925.
Vaidya, P. L. (ed.) Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra. Darbhanga: The Mithila Institute of Post-Graduate Studies and Research in Sanskrit Learning, 1960.
———(ed.). Śikṣāsamuccaya of Śāntideva. Buddhist Sanskrit Texts, No. 11. Darbhanga: Mithila Institute of Postgraduate Studies and Research in Sanskrit Learning, 1961.
Vienna Buddhist Translation Studies Group, trans. The Questions of Rāṣṭrapāla (Rāṣṭrapālaparipṛcchāsūtra, Toh 62). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2021.
Wogihara, Unrai and Tsuchida, Chikao. Saddharmapuṇḍarīka-sūtram: Romanized and Revised Text of the Bibliotheca Buddhica publication by consulting a Sanskrit Ms. & Tibetan and Chinese translations. Tōkyō: Seigo-Kenkyūkai, 1934–1935.